Training & Procedure Closing Turn in the Azores when the automation makes a rookie mistake
Lots has been written over the last couple of years about pilots relying on the automation to fly the plane into the detriment of real hands-on-the-stick piloting skills. I’ve been jaded by pilots’ reliance on the autopilot. But perhaps this attitude comes from my Air Force training early on and particularly from a black, black night in low altitude over the Atlantic Ocean. In October 1973, the war in Vietnam was winding to a close. For the previous three years or soI was flying the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter to Southeast Asia and all across the Pacific Ocean, encouraging the US assignments in that part of the world. Afterward, a fresh crisis: Israel had once again been attacked by Egypt, and the Air Force was tasked with supplying arms to Israel.
From its birth as a modern country in 1948, Israel has fought its allies because of its survival. But this time, it was contrary to a slightly different background. The oil-rich countries of the Middle East announced that they’d cut off all oil shipments to any state that supported Israel in the conflict. That meant that when the United States wanted to encourage Israel, it might have to do it without the air bases outside its borders.
The Lockheed C-141 has been the Air Force’s secondhand freight aircraft. Its four jet motors allowed it to cruise at just under Mach 0.8 using a selection of 5,000 miles. It weighed roughly 71/2 tons empty and more than twice that completely loaded. It was the perfect aircraft for the assignment. So here was the plan. Aircrews would break at Lajes; the planes would keep moving. This was a normal operation, but there would be two new wrinkles that nearly put me and my team to the Atlantic. To begin with, we were not permitted to fly over any other country’s airspace or territory in any other nation en route. Second, under no circumstances would we leave a plane on the ground at Tel Aviv. The Air Force didn’t wish to visit a burning US aircraft at Tel Aviv on the evening news. My logbook entries from this time show that my team and I picked up loads in Indiana and Arkansas, then flew eight hours or so to Lajes to break, then picked up an incoming plane and flew it for seven to eight hours to Tel Aviv, and then the exact same distance back to Lajes for a beer and bed. We flew two uneventful excursions from Lajes to Tel Aviv and back. About 150 miles west of Israel, a set of Israeli F-4 Phantoms showed up off our wingtip and escorted us almost to touchdown. As we taxied in, we opened the freight doors so we could start offloading as soon as we came to a halt. The refueling truck slipped in next to us since we stopped, and we stumbled with the engines running, we received a weather briefing, filed our flight plan for the leg back unloaded our cargo, and filled with fuel. Then, it was time to phone for taxi and head back west to another eight hours. Not a single additional minute was spent on the ground.
The next trip, on October 28, has been different. The initial four hours of the flight east were uneventful.
While small aircraft have wires running from the control yoke to the elevator, large aircraft don’t. Movement of the yoke on large aircraft induces hydraulic valves to open and close, which, in turn, moves the elevator. The pilot has no sensory feedback from this movement of hydraulic luid. Thus, to give the pilot the feeling of aerodynamic sense that we are accustomed to, the good engineers at Lockheed comprised the elevator artificial-feel system. This was a method of springs that sensed the aircraft airspeed from the fundamental air-data pc and corrected the amount of strain the pilot would sense from motion on the yoke. As in aircraft, the larger the airspeed, the harder it was to pull back on the yoke. Great system, and it worked almost all the time.
When the system failed, it generally failed at the mode that required more back pressure on the yoke than expected. There was an in-flight reset procedure, but if that didn’t work, the system needed to be flashed on the ground by the maintenance people. In our case, the machine collapsed, and if we disengaged the autopilotthe nose of the airplane dropped instantly — and hard. The plan we invented was that we would fly an ILS approach using the autopilot engaged, and we would disengage as we needed to flare. At that time, the copilot and I’d jointly haul back to the yoke and get the nosewheel up just high enough to land, which worked OK.
We’d no maintenance support at Tel Aviv, along with the flight engineer was unable to reset the system. On the following day, we’d have left the airplane for its maintenance folks, but that wasn’t an option. I knew that I might have refused to fly the plane, I knew I could have refused to ﬂy the airplane, but I also knew it was going to be moved by somebody, immediately. I felt it was not reasonable to put someone else into this circumstance, not understanding how to react.
But I knew it was likely to be moved by someone, instantly. I believed that it wasn’t fair to put somebody else into this situation, not knowing how to react. Our takeoff briefing was ordinary, with one addition: At rotation speed, both the copilot and I’d pull on the yoke, and when we got the aircraft to the climb-out pitch place, we would engage the autopilot.
Another eight hours back, and we’d time for a lot of conversation. The aircraft was approved for Category III landing operations, meaning that when we had the appropriate ground gear, we could allow the autopilot capture the localizer and glideslope, engage the autothrottle system to hold the airspeed, and allow the autoland system to deliver the nose up at 50 ft agl and set the plane on the centerline. What could go wrong?
It was almost midnight on a moonless night. The only lights to be observed were those on the island, about 20 kilometers away. We descended to approximately 2,000 feet, rechecked all frequencies and switch settings, and ready to see that the autopilot do its thing. Though I had never done this before in an aircraft, I had done it over and over from the simulator.
Flaps were placed in the approach setting, landing gear was down, and airspeed was created for its approach. We had been on a 45-degree intercept to the f inal strategy course for Runway 15, about 15 miles out. The localizer needle began to move off the edge of the circumstance, along with the aircraft started a left turn to intercept the final approach course to Runway 15. Since the plane started to roll out of this flip, we understood there was a problem with our strategy. We simply did not know what.
We were all set for some type of downward runaway pitch trip.
Both the copilot and I had been set to pull on the yoke if needed. However, as the plane began to roll out of this turn, it started a smooth but rapid nose-up movement. Simultaneously, the airspeed began decreasing toward the stall rate. We had equipment and flaps deployed, exactly the worst place to maintain with the plane moving toward a stall. This was training just kicked in.
I do not remember what I mentioned, but I remember simultaneously disengaging the autopilot and autothrottles, rolling into a steep turn to the left and smoothly pushing all four throttles forward, and staring hard in the attitude indicator because I did so. The moment the nose proceeded up, the lights of the island went out of sight–there was no horizon to be seen. To the left because we turned, there was nothing but shameful. No sea, no sky–only black.
The copilot and I played a steep turn on instruments, not much different from those that instrument pupils still practice. Fly the plane. Reintercept that the localizer. The autopilot worked on the prior strategy into Tel Aviv. Try it –carefully. The only thing we did differently this time from our earlier strategy to Tel Aviv was using the autothrottle. So, skip the autothrottle and see if this solves the problem. We would fly this strategy exactly like the approach we flew eight hours earlier. Except it had been nighttime, and we’d the lack of visual cues that nighttime brings on landing. This entire event, from pitch-up to rollout back on final, took less than two minutes–the time necessary to earn a 360-degree steep turn.
Landing was otherwise uneventful, except our adrenalin levels were sky high. The rest of the crew didn’t know how close we came to putting the airplane into the sea. It was just us who were shaking.
We were met, as was normal, by the maintenance team. We pilots and the flight engineer explained what had happened as we could. The maintenance crew stated,”Hmm,” and all of us went to bed.
It had been quite some time until I understood what had happened. I had been so focused on the error of this elevator artificial-feel system which I did not realize that the aircraft was making exactly the exact same newcomer mistake that every pupil pilot makes. As soon as we roll an aircraft into a bank, we will need to boost our lift, because our lift perpendicular to the horizon has decreased. We do so by increasing the angle of attack, and the only way we could raise the angle of attack and maintain altitude and airspeed is to I was so focused on the malfunction of the elevator artiﬁcial-feel system that I didn’t realize that the aircraft was making exactly the same rookie mistake that every pupil pilot makes.
Increase electricity. The plane did so and added the correct number of nose-up trim to hold the level turn. But, it was slow to include power to hold the airspeed–just like a student pilot.
A failure to boost power will end in either a reduction of airspeed or altitude. Or at the Starlifter. In our instance, the aircraft was calling for more power since the elevation was fixed along with the turn to closing was causing the airspeed to dissipate. However, just like a beginning student learning extreme turns, the autothrottle system was supporting. It had been hoping to include electricity, but it came in late. When the airplane rolled out on final, the airplane was low on airspeed, and the only thing it knew to do was to increase the pitch to maintain altitude, which only resulted in the airspeed to fall more. Lousy cycle. The solution for any impending stall is to reduce the angle of attack, while adhering to increased power. I’ve always thanked Lockheed for giving us an aircraft with plenty of power–since we had sufficient to make the runway.